Monday, August 20, 2012

"Gotcha!" questions

I'm pretty sure that anyone reading this blog is familiar with Todd Akin and his stupefying comment that "legitimate rape" rarely leads to pregnancy because women's bodies are designed, somehow, (magically?) to prevent it. (The comment is rhetorical gold. It both begs the question - so, what's an "illegitimate" rape, then? - and invokes the authority of science where no supporting science exists.)

Almost as disturbing, though, is the media characterization of his stupidity as a "flub". Google is currently returning 178k results for "todd akin flub", two of the top three being from ABC ("Campaign flub by GOP Senate candidate...") and CNN ("A flub by a Republican Senate candidate..."). For the record, "todd akin  misogyny" and "todd akin misogynist" return 140k and 119k hits, respectively.

But this characterization is equally moronic. A flub is something that's comical, accidental, and virtually harmless. A Freudian slip is a flub. Tripping over my own feet and missing a ground ball in a game of softball is a flub. Outtakes or gag reels that are set to hilarious kazoo music. Consciously and pointedly verbalizing your misogyny and scientific ignorance, on the other hand, is decidedly not a flub. It is almost the exact opposite of a flub.

The choice of "flub" reminds me of Sarah Palin and her numerous complaints about "gotcha questions" from the media - another word-branding exercise designed to obscure the stupidity of a politician. Now, "gotcha questions" do exist, and journalists do try to catch people saying the wrong thing, contradicting themselves, or simply lying. It happens. But it's also totally legitimate. And it's also their job to do this. Good journalism should include gotcha questions. And just as those questions shouldn't be reduce to a game of "gotcha", which subsequently diminishes the importance of the question, we shouldn't reduce the answers to "flubs", which makes them seem awfully inconsequential.

(For the sake of levity, I'll include a link to a slideshow from New York Magazine that describes the various incidents that Palin has characterized as "gotcha" moments. Unsurprisingly, all of them are simply cases of journalists doing exactly what you would expect of a reasonably ethical journalist.)

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Movies I've watched in the last month: Chronicle, Ted, Amazing Spider-man, Moonrise Kingdom

When I finished watching Chronicle on a flight to Newfoundland, I was seriously wondering whether it was the best superhero movie I've ever seen. (In retrospect, I was just really surprised by how good it was and this probably isn't true. Also, it's not quite the compliment that it sounds like, because I'm a grumpy old man when it comes to superhero movies.) A massive amount of credit for its quality has to go to Dane DeHaan, who played Andrew. In the hands of a worse actor, his character could have easily slipped into cliché and felt laughably pathetic. As it is, though, his transformation into a supervillain - especially since it's not initially clear whether his 'origin story' maps more easily on to that of a good guy or bad guy - is probably the most impressive and convincing in the short history of the film genre.

While Ted isn't technically a Frat Pack/Apatow Mafia movie, it feels an awful lot like one. The main character is a 30-something in arrested development, pot-head, dead-end job, hot girlfriend, fart jokes. With one important difference, mind you, as pointed out by my friend Noa: in the end, his girlfriend accepts that he'll never change and he isn't forced to grow up. There's an added wrinkle, of course - this isn't Seth Rogen or Steve Carrell, it's Mark Wahlberg, and every woman in the movie delivers at least one line about how he's really hot and charming. (As opposed to the usual protagonist in the man-child genre, who is average-looking, at best, out-of-shape, and funny in a self-deprecating or depressing way. If he's funny at all.) So, the lesson seems to be that you don't have to be the big wheel so long as you look like one. Okay, then.

If I had never watched another superhero movie, or if The Amazing Spider-man had been released in 1999, I'm certain that I would have loved it and thought it was the greatest thing ever. As it is, I thought it was good. (Better than I expected. But I saw it a month after it was released, and I expected it to be terrible.) It also shamelessly borrows, steals, and simply rips-off every superhero movie that came before it - it feels more like a mash-up or a Greatest Hits compilation than a film in its own right. It looks like the director was trying to do a Dark Knight version of Spidey; the villain's masterplan is basically Magneto's from X-Men, and visually resembles Loki's from Avengers; the Lizard's face looks like Voldemort's, and he sounds like him, too, (Seriously: compare Rhys Ifans' "pEEtuh pAHkuh" to Ralph Fiennes' "hAIRee pAHtuh". Eerie.) and the way that Peter's origin has been tied to his parents also feels very Potter-ish. Also, James Garfield has Edward Cullen hair. I could also complain about the curious way that, aside from Gwen, the film is both patently unfunny and completely sidelines every female supporting character, including, unforgivably, Aunt May. But I'd rather say one nice thing: Andrew Garfield is a better Spider-man than Tobey Maguire.

I recently applied for a job where I was asked to name my favorite movie. I never know how to answer this question - I don't have a "favorite" - so I went with The Royal Tenenbaums. But I think that Moonrise Kingdom might actually be Wes Anderson's best movie. Watching it, you get the feeling that Anderson actually gets what it's like to be 12. It is, strangely, his most serious film, but only because he takes the characters so seriously. So, while it might be absurd in places - each adult is reduced to a caricature (most notably, the character known only as Social Services) as they might be imagined by a 12 year old - it's a very respectful kind of absurdity. There's one particularly memorable moment for me, when an enraged Bill Murray effortlessly tears away the tent that the two 12 year olds are cowering inside of. None of them say anything, but Murray stands there silently for just a moment, as if realizing that his reaction was needlessly destructive and totally ridiculous. But he doesn't admit it, and it lasts only for that moment, because grown-ups are like that.

Thursday, August 09, 2012

Olympic soccer: rules and dives

Two quick responses to Olympic women's soccer:

1) Without getting into too much detail - because if you care, you already know; and if you don't, you can just read about it here - a semi-final game in Olympic soccer might have been decided by a referee's decision to invoke an arcane and rarely used rule that says a goalkeeper can't hold on to the ball for more than 6 seconds. (How rare and arcane? Apparently, no sports writer can find mention of it in an international or major domestic league game - men's or women's - since 2002. That's ten years, and probably tens of thousands of games.) What makes this rule especially damaging is that the opposing team is awarded a free-kick directly in front of the goal.

For baseball fans, this would be like enforcing the "12-second" rule for pitchers. What "12-second" rule, you ask? The one that's never actually used, yet remains in the rulebook:

8.04 When the bases are unoccupied, the pitcher shall deliver the ball to the batter within 12 seconds after he receives the ball. Each time the pitcher delays the game by violating this rule, the umpire shall call “Ball.” The 12-second timing starts when the pitcher is in possession of the ball and the batter is in the box, alert to the pitcher. The timing stops when the pitcher releases the ball.

Hilariously, the average pitcher in Major League Baseball is nowhere near the ostensible "limit" of 12 seconds per possession - it's actually more like 20. And yet, an umpire could suddenly decide to call this rule, and the pitcher would have no substantive reason to object, except on the grounds that no one calls it. Which is simply a disaster waiting to happen. If officials don't use it, the rulebook should lose it.

*     *     *

2) I often find men's soccer painful to watch. It's the diving. I just can't stand to watch people pretend to be fouled and then pretend to be hurt. And I like watching women's soccer because it there's almost none of that. And not only is there virtually no diving, but it seems like these women will collide and run over each other and get right back up - to put it simply, they 'suck it up'.

At first, this seems really unintuitive. We expect women's sports to have (patronizing) rules in place to protect them - women's hockey, for instance, doesn't allow body checking at any level - and we expect, in North America, at least, that men will behave in typically masculine ways and eschew diving or any other behavior that might make them seem weak.

That last bit might be the important part, though. When I was watching Canada play Great Britain, the commentators suggested that the stylistic difference between the women's and men's games was cultural - the women's game, and it's first powerhouse-teams - emerged in the USA and East Asia, where diving in any sport has never been valued, and those values were emulated by other countries. Now, I don't know that this is an adequate explanation. Most of the women's teams are coached and trained by European men, after all. But it's certainly interesting. (And certainly problematic, since it's that masculine ethic of playing through the pain and self-destructive behavior that I've criticized again and again. And which, clearly, I value in spite of that.)

Friday, August 03, 2012

When mockery and/or satire becomes self-defeating

This meme has been circulated on Facebook over the past few weeks: 

I totally approve of the sentiment, which is to mock superstition, in general, and especially the kind of superstition that puts trust in - and gives credit to - celestial bodies for influencing events that they couldn't possibly influence. (In this respect, it is also a somewhat more veiled attack on astrology and theism.) It can be fun to poke fun at people for believing ridiculous things that defy explanation or imagination; it's even funnier to poke fun at them for believing in the power of something that is long-dead. Funny, snarky stuff.

There's a problem with the message itself, though. Three, actually.

The first, which occurred to me immediately and I've seen repeated widely, is that stars don't live for millions of years - they live for billions of years. If it only ("only") took millions of years for an individual star's light to reach us on Earth, and it's not obviously in its death throes, (which could still constitute millions of years) it's almost certain that the star is still there.

The second problem, which I had to look up to confirm, is that our eyes can't actually perceive stars that are millions of light years away. (Most of us can faintly see the Andromeda Galaxy, which is 2.5 million light years away, but only as a blur of light. Not as distinct stars.) The Milky Way Galaxy is, in fact, only (again, "only") about 100,000 light years in diameter. And our eyes? Someone with perfect eyesight will struggle to see a star in Cassiopeia that's 16k light years. (A more typical pair of eyes can only see stars that are about 5k light years away.)

The Andromeda Galaxy - all one trillion stars of it - is 2.5m light years away,
and looks about as bright as a satellite.

The third problem? Another more obvious one: when we wish upon stars, that "star" is typically of the shooting-star variety. Which isn't a star - it's a piece of space debris burning up in the atmosphere. So, yes, by the time you finish your wish that shooting star has been totally burned up. That part's right. But you're also seeing it in real-time. So, again, the joke doesn't work.
So, what we're left with is a little meme about how the superstitious are ignorant of astronomy... but it's only funny if its readers' are similarly ignorant of astronomy. (Irony!)

On Facebook, a friend argued that the factuality of the joke wasn't important, because he appreciated the sentiment. (ie. The comforting feeling of superiority generated by the comedy.) I probably couldn't disagree more - the sentiment is empty precisely because the joke is entirely untrue. And I'd imagine, in fact, that the sorts of people who believe in astrology would offer up the exact same argument in support of their beliefs - it doesn't matter if their superstitions are scientifically valid, because what matters is the security that they find in it. (ie. The comforting feeling of control over their lives that's generated by the predictions - or, rather, that's generated by the Forer Effect.) And if these aren't the exact same thing, then they're certainly similar enough so as to negate any claim that the person who laughs has to the intellectual high-ground.

There are plenty of ways to go about making fun of people who believe ridiculous and absurd things. Let's not go inventing new ways that just discredit us.